Going into a week three matchup with the Los Angeles Rams, the defending-Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers had a 10-game winning streak on their hands, dating back to a 26-14 win over the Vikings in December 2020. Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford knew winning this game would be crucial to silencing the critics who told him he could never win a big game. The question on everyone’s minds was: Could He Deliver?
Stafford answered with a resounding YES! The former Lions QB delivered a signature performance which might’ve been the best he’s had thus far while wearing the horns. Now with LA advancing to the Divisional Round, the question becomes: Can He Do It Again?
LA fans will find out Sunday afternoon when the Rams travel down to (possibly) enjoy the Florida sun. I assume there won’t be much time for sunbathing this weekend for Los Angeles so before both teams take the field at the Ray Jay, I sent five questions to Gil Arcia of Bucs Nation to get to know Tampa Bay better.
Q - During the Rams’ 34-24 win in week three against the Bucs, the Matthew Stafford-Cooper Kupp connection was unstoppable. Stafford played one of his best games with LA, going 27-of-38 for 343 yards and four touchdowns while Kupp caught nine of those passes for 96 yards and a pair of scores. Why was it such a struggle to stop this dynamic duo the first time and how should Tampa try to limit them in the Divisional Round?
A - Tampa Bay was hurting on defense, and hurting bad. When Jamel Dean got hurt in the first quarter of the game, the Buccaneers were down two of their top three cornerbacks. They were also without pass rusher Jason Pierre-Paul. The defense was banged up and inexperienced cornerbacks were tasked with covering a very, VERY good group of wide receivers, and there was a lack of pressure on Stafford. This time around, the defense will have all its starters on the defensive side of the ball together since the start of Week 1 so we should see a different defense from Tampa Bay than what we saw in Week 3. Defensive coordinator will have more flexibility to call the defensive plays he likes to call which disguises a lot of blitzes.
Q - Keeping on the theme of the previous matchup, the Bucs were only able to muster 35 rushing yards for the game. Ageless dual-threat QB Tom Brady was the team’s leading rusher that afternoon. That was also with Fournette and Jones on the field and both their statuses are uncertain this week. How confident are you in Ke’Shawn Vaughn and Giovani Bernard should they have to step in again after each rushed for a score against the Eagles and what advantages does each bring to Tampa’s offense?
A - The Bucs are very good when their run game complements their passing game. That wasn’t the case in the previous matchup. The running game never got off, and part of that was because they got away from it. That hasn’t necessarily been the case as of late and Vaugh has proven himself as a back capable of starting. Bernard will provide that veteran presence out of the backfield with very good hands. If both have to go again, there shouldn’t be any concerns when it comes to either player’s capabilities.
Q - Head Coach Bruce Arians has said it’ll likely come down to the wire whether All-Pro right tackle Tristan Wirfs will play Sunday after suffering a sprained ankle on the first series against Philly. To make matters worse, center Ryan Jensen and Josh Wells who replaced Wirfs are hobbled, making them game-time decisions as well. The injuries resulted in Brady being sacked four times after being sacked a league-low 23 times in the regular season. Assuming all these guys aren’t able to play against LA, who will be able to fill in and protect the seven-time champion?
A - Wells will most likely play. It’ll be extremely interesting, however, to see what they will do if Jensen and Wirfs are no-go’s for Sunday. Versatile lineman Aaron Stinnie has come in intermittely since last season and plays extremely well, including the playoff run a year ago. Tampa Bay will have to get creative, though, and head coach Bruce Arians knows that. He’s expressed his concern facing the Rams defensive front and this week will present a major problem for them. I think we could see more tight end usage along the line with protection out of the backfield from the tight ends as well.
Q - In week 15 against the New Orleans Saints, Chris Godwin tore his ACL which prematurely ended a strong campaign. Godwin finished the year with 98 receptions for 1,103 yards and five touchdowns in 14 games played. How has the offense attempted to make up for his absence and given that he’s been playing the 2021 season on the franchise tag, what do you think Tampa does with him in the offseason?
A - It’s uncertain what the front office will do with Godwin. Perhaps this injury helps their case in negotiations some which is unfortunate for him. But everything pointed to him signing a nice deal to stay in Tampa Bay. Fortunately for the Buccaneers they have receiving hands galore and not just the depth at receiver. Tight ends Rob Gronkowski, Cam Brate, and O.J. Howard have all seen more action recently as well as targets and even bigger roles in the offense when it doesn’t come to the passing game. But receivers Scotty Miller, Tyler Johnson, Cyril Grayson, and now veteran Breshad Perriman are all contributing.
Q - The Buccaneers had nothing that resembled a Super Bowl hangover, much to the dismay of TB12 haters everywhere, as they finished with the #2 seed in the NFC and tied the Packers for the best record in the NFL at 13-4. Going into the playoffs, how confident were you in the team’s ability to repeat and has your confidence waned at all as they go into a crucial rematch with Los Angeles with a trip to the NFC Championship on the line?
A - Honestly, I thought the team would have struggled against Jalen Hurts last week like they have struggled all season long against scrambling quarterbacks. But with a healthy defensive front seven for the first time in a while and Todd Bowles playing his defense differently than he had all season it obviously proved me wrong. I still don’t see them beating the Rams. Los Angeles just has too much speed the Buccaneers secondary cannot match — unless Bowles attacks L.A.’s offense the same way he did the Eagles. I also see the Rams defense making Tampa Bay’s offense miserable all afternoon. I just can’t wrap my head around Tampa Bay coming out as winners. And if they do, and depending on how they win, I may have to change my view for how they’ll matchup in the NFC Championship and give them a better chance than what I have been giving them recently.